Thursday, July 28, 2011

Eruptions of the Mad Hermit: Tweeting on Masirah

The above is a photo of the only public cross in the entire Arabian desert. It is located at the northern end of Masirah Island.

A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him saying, ‘You are mad, you are not like us.' –St. Anthony of the Desert

[Raskolnikov] dreamed that the whole world was condemned to a terrible new strange plague that had come to Europe from the depths of Asia. In this dream, each thought that he alone had the truth, and each was at war with all the others, slaughtering them in a rage of destruction. -Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment

There are stories of truly mad hermits, even amongst the holiest of the Desert Fathers, though as the Russian peasants know, it’s not always easy to tell the difference between the holy and the mad. As Chesterton pointed out, by any worldly standard, Christ was mad. One might say, a homeless mad vagrant. But, of course, according to Christians Nouveaux, the whole enterprise of the Desert Fathers was mad and best left behind. These disgruntled chaps should have joined a Peace and Justice Group or posted little notes on the parish bulletin board.

Nevertheless, the movement of thousands of people to the deserts of Egypt and Israel was one of the most important convulsions in Christian history. From the third century A.D. until as late as the seventh, a great reaction took place against a worldly Christianity that had lost its bearings in the post-Constantinian relaxation. It gave birth to Christian monasticism, another species of madness the modern Christian fears and despises.

But where did you think Jesus, Elijah, and John the Baptist slept and dreamed? In the Jerusalem Hilton?

There is a Mad Hermit who dwells in the desert zones of this blog. Which kind of madness does he have? Which kind do you have? You be the judge.

The Mad Hermit awoke in the usual desert dawn of Oman, the hottest nation in the world, when the sun finds billions of tiny mirrors to magnify its rage against water. Ah, he thought, the light that burns out the madness of the world. He had come here as a teacher in 1994, seeking a refuge from modernism. And from all
–isms and –ologies of the cities of the world.

Late in 2002, his last two-year contract had expired and there was no promise of another. The University has expelled him from his campus home, and escorted him to the airport for his official exit. He had left the plane at Dubai and re-entered the country by land, slipping past the border guards on an old track he had used for camping. He recovered his aging Land Rover, already loaded with his camping gear, from a friendly Pakistani mechanic, and with sunburned face and a worn kumma on his head, stealthily moved about the country, easily mistaken for an ex-pat oil worker.

In the grim Omani summer he knew no better refuge than one of the thousands of coves on the Arabian Sea, in one of which he pitched his tent and dangled his feet in the waters of the Gulf. [In my original manuscript there follow a great number of other details people who read nowadays, pass over. “Too much information!”] Thinking of his classroom days, the mad hermit remembered this desperate cry of the modern, and watched sardines nibble at his toes.

The world looked different from Oman when he first arrived. It was still one of the least known and frequented countries of the world. He began to enjoy camping in the desert weekend after weekend, where the only sound was silence. And by chance, he began to read books about the Desert Fathers.

At any rate, if the reader is still with me (a 10-90 shot), after two months of Arabian Gulf summer, the hermit had nearly baked out of his head the millions of strands of argument and association that frustrate any attempt at contemplation. The great Cloud of Unknowing was just beginning to form when, drat it, the Mad Hermit discovered that his last tin was gone and his last bottle of water emptied.

At the old suk in Muttrah, he looked about for the least modern shopping center he could find. But as he eased into a ramshackle grocery, past the sign reading “Moslems not Permitted in the Pork Room,” he spotted a sight he had first encountered in 1988. In the center of a spacious area surrounded by shops, there were Arabs in disdashas sipping their espressos and talking on cell phones. They were all facing each other but talking with someone not present. “Checking up on their wives, like as not,” an Aussie muttered.

Then, in the twinkling of a camel’s eye, the world had changed for Arabia Deserta. In the same year a nation that had as yet only three paved highways, had entered cyberspace, via fiber optic cables and cell phones manufactured in Finland. The immemorial desert scene of men gathered around an evening charcoal fire and roasting their goat kebabs was still common after the last Allah Akkbar!prayer call, but the desert night now rang with the sound of cell phones across the dunes and salt wastes.

Gradually, the mad hermit discovered stratagems for living in desert places, in the mountains and on the coast. From time to time he was forced to use visit suks and villages to replenish his stores. Like Father Foucault, he found that it was possible to live on little else but palm dates, which Oman supplied in abundance twice a year. Once a week he slipped into a Catholic church for prayer and the sacraments. He particularly enjoyed Mass (and the sermons) in Marathi, Konkani, Malayalam, Arabic, Tagalog, Sinhala, or Tamil, so that he did not have to listen to the cretin English of the modern church. When he was within reach of a mosque, he knelt on a mat and prayed the Angelus at prayer calls.

Torn by a lust he could not conquer, his visits to the shopping centers continued every few months, and by 2004 he had found himself loitering around a an internet café, where dozens of young men were clattering on the keys and giggling at porn sites. What madness! he thought. As far as he could tell, the planet had been consumed by a huge beast named the Internet. Back in the desert, he prayed to be freed of the demon of curiositas.

By 2010 he had turned seventy years of age, and was as thin as a young date palm. The Land Rover, held together by the wiles of the Pakistani mechanic, now chuffed along like an aging camel, and he himself had become a legend, especially among the Bedouin bands that moved about in Toyota pickup trucks. He thumbed his prayer books, hurled rocks at black scorpions and camel spiders, and fought the demons that pulled him away from God. He prayed that there would be another hermit whom he might meet once a week, as the Desert Fathers did. None came.

A garrulous Filipino priest counseled him in confession to join the parish charismatic community, but he ran from the church and ploughed back into the dunes, screaming “no!” until his throat was too dry to scream any more.

It was time to retreat farther, and he remembered his visit to Masirah Island in 1990. The ferry carried him and the Rover to the ninety-mile long desert island just off the coast of Oman, at the southern tip of which was the sun-bronzed skull of a sperm whale, facing south across the thousands of miles to the Antarctic. Here he pitched his tattered tent, watched the whales swimming south, and blessed them on their journey.

After a year, he drove north on the Masirah road to find a suk where he could stock up on rice and canned hummus. He was astonished to see the night sky lit up with lights from luxury hotels. A ragged beggar boy met him outside the blazing Al Sultan shopping center.

“What?” he burbled in poor Arabic, only to learn that the hundred-year curse on Masirah had recently come to an end and the place was now to become a tourist paradise. A two-mile-long bridge would soon link with the mainland.

In a café inside the center there were a dozen tables, and at each young Arabs were frantically doing something with their thumbs. “What is this?” he burbled again.

“We are tweeting, Sir”


“It is sending messages, Sir.”

“What messages?”

The young men laughed. After a chat among themselves, one said with a laugh, “we are all saying ‘I am on Masirah!’”

The horror was dawning on the rattled hermit. The desert itself, that vast emptiness between Muscat and Damascus, was disappearing, and instead of hermits and herds of camels, there were now only thundering herds of solipsists, each frantically tweeting, "I am, I am!"

The interested reader may find more about Masirah Island and the hundred-year curse on this site at